While Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori feels educational reform is a key policy for his Cabinet, new Education Minister Tadamori Oshima wants to establish an educational program to enhance children’s social participation.

Recent heinous crimes committed by youths are “beyond our imagination,” Oshima said, noting today’s youth are increasingly becoming “lonely,” with little sense of connection with society.

“We need to think of ways to include children in local community activities,” Oshima, 53, said in an interview with The Japan Times.

He suggested that by including volunteer activities in the curriculum at elementary and junior high schools, children would learn they are members of their local community and have responsibilities toward society.

Oshima stressed, however, that the most basic education for children’s social participation should be carried out at home. “We can’t tell each family what to do, but we’ll have to keep raising the issue for families to take education at home seriously,” he said.

Making volunteer activities mandatory for youths is being discussed by the prime minister’s panel on educational reform, which was established in March by the late Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi.

Suggestions from panel members include making all Japanese citizens aged 18 engage in one to two years of volunteer activities and having children in elementary and junior high schools go on two-week summer camps.

Oshima, a Lower House member of the Liberal Democratic Party, has served as Environment Agency chief and deputy chief Cabinet secretary. But he has no expertise in education policy.

Oshima said he will follow closely the discussions of the prime minister’s panel in formulating policies, including discussion on revising the Fundamental Law of Education.

Revision of the law is one of the key issues to be debated by the panel. The law, established in 1947, states that the basic purpose of education is to make Japan a peaceful nation. It also contains clauses specifying equal opportunity for education, coeducation and compulsory education.

Oshima said the law should “fit with the time” and may need to include new ideas.

“When Japan was trying to rebuild itself 50 years ago, uniformity in education may have been necessary,” he said. “But today, with Japan having grown into the world’s second-largest economy, we need to foster creativity and individuality in education.”

Such ideas, as well as nurturing a sense of social responsibility, are among the items that could be added to the education law, he said.

On English education, Oshima said schools should focus on strengthening students’ ability to verbally communicate in English because the language now is effectively “the international communication language.”

Under the Education Ministry’s new curriculum to be introduced in 2002, elementary schools will be able to teach English on a voluntary basis in “comprehensive studies” hours. During those hours, schools are free to take up any issues that are not covered under other subjects.

Advocates of early English education want it to be a required elementary school subject, but Oshima said English should be treated as an option at that level.

“I cannot say making English a requirement is absolutely necessary,” he said. “We should focus on improving communications skills, but it doesn’t mean people will be speaking good English just because they start early.

“To be able to speak English, they have to have the will to study, and they need to do it continuously,” Oshima said, noting good Japanese teaching is very important at the elementary school level.

Recently, the education minister’s panel on improving English-teaching methods said in an interim report that the language should be taught at elementary schools by teachers choosing a fun approach with games and songs — they should avoid teaching the language in a one-way manner.